(BadWolf reviews the wonderful 2013 album by China’s Tengger Cavalry.)
Folk metal is hard. On the one hand, when the genre is executed to my liking, it’s one of the finest sub-genres of metal there is—full of character, interesting lyrics, groove, hooks, and interesting instrumentation. I’m talking about bands like Moonsorrow, Melechesh, and Primordial. On the other hand, most folk metal bands send me flying for the delete key: folk metal bands like Finntroll and Turisas get cheesy quickly, and the sheer earnestness behind that cheese just makes me pity them more—and want less of them in my ears.
File China’s Tengger Cavalry alongside Primordial on my list of folk bands that do it right. Invisible Oranges scribe Rhys Williams turned me on to this band of heathens with a few cuts from their previous album, Sunesu Cavalry. Tengger Cavalry hail from China, and play folk metal based on the myths and legends of nomadic Asiatic tribes such as the Mongols and Huns. What was once a one-man project, led by guitarist Nature Zhang, has since become a full six-piece band. Tengger Cavalry’s second album, and first as a live unit, The Expedition, dropped on Bandcamp early this summer, and it will trample you under hoof.
The tribes of Mongolia once raided as far west as the Roman Empire on horseback. With a name like Tengger Cavalry and song titles like “Black Steed,” horse sounds and imagery compose a big part of the band’s sound. The heavier tracks on The Expedition all use Iron Maiden-style gallops, as well as mid-paced triplets to great effect. The band even use a whinnying noise from one of their two (!) Horse Head fiddle players as accent marks in a manner reminiscent of Gojira’s pick-slide dive-bombs.
Those fiddles carry most of Tengger Cavalry’s melody—while Chthonic are content to let their erhu sit in the background, the folk melodies in Tengger Cavalry intertwine and trade off with guitar leads, as on “Expedition.” Other folk elements include a full-time Dombra player, and judicious use of throat singing melodies in the music. Of Tengger Cavalry’s six members, three play folk instruments—it’s surprising the sound is as metallic as it is, all things considered. Too often folk metal bands let the folk aspects of their music ride play second fiddle (pun intended) to the metal elements, in the end cheapening the folk elements until they’re just so much window dressing. In Tengger Cavalry, the Mongolian elements function in sync with the metal in a meaningful way. Hell, the last three songs on the album eschew metal entirely, in favor of more atmospheric folk tracks. The delicate picking that composes “White Pony” is downright beautiful.
Fortunately, Tengger Cavalry bring the metal, as well. The first four tracks on the album all deliver gallops, mid-paced stomps, pentatonic riffs, and breakdowns a-plenty. “Black Steed,” in particular brings the kind of swagger that modern European bands so often lack; it opens with, and returns to, a jangling acoustic guitar passage which down-shifts into full-bore guitar gallop—one of the record’s only curve balls. In fact, if there’s one weakness here, it’s that the more metallic songs stick to pretty tried-and-true song structures and pentatonic scales. Fortunately, some of the more mellow passages—like “Homeland Song”—use the electric guitar as a grinding background texture, which lends the rest of the music some much-needed weight.
The Expedition is a solid, fun, and rollicking ride for me. I cannot speak to its authenticity—I learned more about Mongolian culture from reading about this record than in all my previous years of life. I’m a novice, and it’s easy to look at something like folk metal and render its history as just window dressing, or a gimmick. While Tengger Cavalry don’t conjure the deep melancholy of Primordial or Mooonsorrow, it’s obvious that history and legacy play an important part of the band’s ethos. As is, The Expedition makes my first shake and my neck snap. It’s the best metal record I’ve ever heard from the PRC, and I hope the Chinese—and Nature Zhang—have more music like this in store for the future.